The History of Mental Health First Aid

The community program with global reach

Mental Health First Aid International is a not-for-profit organisation that develops, delivers and evaluates accredited mental health training programs which can be licensed and culturally adapted by suitable mental health organisations in other countries.

The Mental Health First Aid Program began in Australia in 2000 and has since evolved into a global movement with the program delivered by 30 licensed providers in 29 countries. To date, over 6 million people worldwide have been trained.


Timeline of Events 

1997 –
The concept was born

In October 1997, Tony Jorm attends a National Workshop on Depression at the Australian National University, Canberra to develop the focus on depression under the Commonwealth Mental Health Strategy.

During a break-up discussion group on community attitudes, Meg Smith coins the term ‘depression first aid’. Later, on a dog walk with their King Charles Cavalier named King, Tony Jorm discusses the idea of a first aid course for depression and other mental illnesses with his wife Betty Kitchener, because she had experience teaching first aid courses for the Australian Red Cross, had recurrent episodes of severe depression and had faced discrimination in the workplace because of mental illness.

Tony and Betty decide to try to develop such a course in their spare time on weekends and conduct it voluntarily as a service to the Canberra community. They choose to name the course Mental Health First Aid (MHFA).

Mental Health Literacy (MHL)

MHFA co-founder Professor Tony Jorm and colleagues coin the term Mental Health Literacy (MHL) as an extension of the concept of ‘health literacy’.

A photograph of Betty Kitchener and Tony Jorm from the first MHFA course in Canberra

2000 –
Where it all began

A reference group is formed to guide the format of a MHFA course consisting of two mental health nurses, one psychiatrist, two teachers, one first aid instructor and three mental health consumers.

Tony and Betty write the first MHFA Manual.

The first MHFA course is run as a pilot in November to an invited group of participants in Canberra. Initially a 6-hour course, early feedback suggests that this is too brief and the course expands to 9 hours.

2002 –
First Published Trial and First MHFA Manual published 

The first article reporting an uncontrolled trial of MHFA is published in BMC Psychiatry. The study finds that course participants changed their beliefs about treatment to be more like those of health professionals, felt increased confidence in helping others and were more willing to help people with mental illness.

The first MHFA Manual is published.

2003 - Scotland adopts program

Betty Kitchener is invited to Scotland to train 13 Scottish MHFA Instructors. Scotland is the first overseas partner to adopt the program.

2004 - ALGEE is born

Hong Kong adopts the program and urges MHFA to adopt a bear as a mascot.  ‘ALGEE’ the koala is born (the closest native animal in Australia to a bear) and is named after the MHFA Action Plan acronym.

2004 – Controlled trials  

The first randomised controlled MHFA trials were published in the scientific literature – one on MHFA in the workplace and the other on MHFA for the public in a rural setting.

2007 –

First Youth MHFA Manual is published.

The first Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander MHFA Courses were developed by Len Kanowski.

The MHFA Program is licensed and adapted in Canada, Scotland, USA and Wales.

2008 –

The MHFA Program wins its first international award in the USA.

MHFA Program is licensed in Finland, Japan, New Zealand and Northern Ireland.

First article is published about the MHFA Program spreading globally:

Kitchener BA, Jorm AF. (2008). Mental health first aid: An international programme for early intervention. Early Intervention in Psychiatry, 2, 55-61


MHFA Program spreads to England, Denmark, Hong Kong and South Africa.

2010 –

MHFA Australia, England, Canada, Singapore and USA present together in a symposium at the 6th World Conference on the Promotion of Mental Health and Prevention of Mental and Behavioral Disorders in Washington DC.

The MHFA Program is chosen as one of 10 case studies in a UK report on ‘Radical efficiency’ in action across the world. ‘Radical efficiency’ is about different, better and lower cost public services – innovation that delivers much better public outcomes for much lower cost.

MHFA Program is licensed to Sweden and Nepal.

2011 –

In its 10th year, MHFA trains its 170,000th first aider in Australia. 1% of the Australian population has now been trained in MHFA. An editorial is published in the Australian New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry marking this landmark achievement.

The MHFA program is now active in the following countries:
Hong Kong
Northern Ireland

Image of a MHFA journal article


The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Portugal adopt the MHFA program.

2013 –

The Teen MHFA Program for adolescents in Years 10-12 (helping their peers) is developed by Dr Claire Kelly and Dr Laura Hart and is piloted and successfully evaluated.

In 2013, former President of the United States Barack Obama put forward a specific plan to protect children and communities by reducing gun violence in the United States. This included the provision of Mental Health First Aid training to teachers and other adults who interact with youth to detect and respond to mental illness in children and young adults, including how to encourage adolescents and families experiencing these problems to seek treatment.

2014 –

Swedish researchers publish a systematic review and meta-analysis of 15 of the major MHFA trials. This is the best type of evaluation that can be undertaken to assess how effective an intervention is. Statistically significant improvements are found in knowledge, attitudes and helping behaviour.

US Congress funds President Barack Obama’s ‘Now is the Time’ Plan, which recommends funding MHFA for teachers who interact with young people.

The MHFA Program is licensed to Malta, Pakistan and the Republic of Ireland.

2015 –

The Mental Health First Aid International Manual is published for employees of multinational organisations in developed countries where there is no licensed provider.

The inaugural MHFA International Summit is held in Vancouver, hosted by the MHFA Canada Program within the Mental Health Commission of Canada. Eight overseas MHFA Programs are represented by 22 delegates from Australia, Bermuda, Canada, England, Finland, Ireland, Japan and the USA.

MHFA reaches a milestone, with more than one million MHFAiders trained worldwide since 2000. MHFA training has also been completed by over 2% of the Australian adult population.

The Netherlands licenses the MHFA Program.

Support from the First Lady, Michelle Obama

Michelle Obama supports the Mental Health First Aid Program while addressing an audience of government, business and nonprofit leaders in Washington in 2015.


The World Federation for Mental Health set the theme for 2016 World Mental Health Day to be ‘Dignity in Mental Health: Psychological and Mental Health First Aid for All.’

2017 –

Approximately 500,000 people in Australia and 2 million people worldwide have attended a MHFA course.

In 2017, Mental Health First Aid Australia won the prestigious TheMHS Medal. The TheMHS Medal is the top award of the Mental Health Service Awards of Australia and New Zealand given for exceptional contribution to Mental Health.

The 2nd MHFA International Summit was held in Dublin, Ireland, hosted by the MHFA Ireland Program.

MHFA Program is licensed to India and the United Arab Emirates.

Photo of the MHFA CEO, Deputy CEO and Chairman of the board acception the the prestigious The MHS Medal in 2017

2018 –

Australian researchers publish an updated meta-analysis of MHFA programs. Their research supports the findings of the 2014 meta-analysis, finding that MHFA training improves mental health first aid knowledge, recognition of mental disorders, beliefs about effective treatments, confidence, intentions to provide first aid and amount of help provided, and reduces stigmatising attitudes towards people with mental health problems.

These effects last for up to 6 months after the training. “MHFA has a strong evidence base supporting its effectiveness, which is quite rare for this kind of public health education program”, says lead author Dr Amy Morgan.

France, Germany, Malaysia and Switzerland license the MHFA Program.

2019 –

The third MHFA International Summit takes place in Melbourne in November hosted by MHFA International. 13 overseas MHFA Programs are represented by 48 delegates from Australia, Canada, England, Finland, France, Hong Kong, India, Ireland, Malaysia, Netherlands, New Zealand, Switzerland and the USA.

Support from Lady Gaga

Lady Gaga continues her ongoing support of the Teen MHFA program via her mother’s Born This Way Foundation. Further info can be found in this article.

2020 –

MHFA International rapidly develops and adapts new Blended Online Courses for communities and workplaces in response to COVID-19.

MHFA Program is licensed to Austria, Israel, Luxembourg and New Zealand. 

Photograph of a laptop computer with a AMHFA online course

2022 –

The MHFA Program is licensed to Slovakia.

2023 –

Over 1 million people in Australia and 6 million people worldwide have attended an MHFA course. 

MHFA International and the Centre for Mental Health at the University of Melbourne host the inaugural International MHFA Research Summit online where 19 researchers present their research into MHFA.

MHFA Program is licensed to Singapore.

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